China’s Nuclear Expansion

Bryan Chan
March 18, 2011

Submitted as coursework for Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2011

In recent decades, China's rapid economic expansion has made securing energy resources an important national priority. While China has traditionally relied heavily upon coal for electricity generation, growing energy demands, concerns of environmental damage, and a lack of alternatives have made its recent campaign to aggressively expand its use of nuclear power a virtual necessity. While such a rapid expansion is not historically unprecedented, such a rapid expansion does raise a number of risks.

Since 1978, China's GDP growth has grown at nearly 10% a year, quadrupling its energy consumption over this period. [1] During this period, other countries rapidly expanded nuclear energy production, generating furious debate about both the technological challenges and safety concerns associated with nuclear energy However, China did not participate in this movement, opting instead to rely upon increased consumption of domestically abundant coal. [2]

Coal now dominates China's energy production, accounting for 80% of electricity generation in 2007. [1] However, the Chinese government has recently begun acknowledging the many compelling reasons to diversity away from coal-based energy. For example, in 2004, China's Medium and Long-Term Energy Conversation Plan forecasted that as coal consumption approached 3 billion tons per year, "society and the environment would be pushed to a critical point, posing tremendous costs and pressures on energy infrastructure construction, water resources, transportation capability." [2] However, China has likely already passed that threshold, as national consumption had already reached 2.91 billion tons by 2008. Environmental concerns clearly play a role in motivating diversification way from coal - the damage done by coal usage is "irreversible and devastating." [1] Coal use results in emission of sulfur dioxide, which has caused acid rain to become an increasing problem in China, as well as the particulate emissions that can cause respiratory illnesses. Additionally, reliance on coal has led China to become the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide, which contributes to global climate change.

The lack of a realistic alternative to coal besides nuclear power has fueled the need to rapidly construct additional nuclear power plants. General public opposition to dam construction has hindered the expansion of hydroelectric power. Likewise, a lack of long-distance transmission infrastructure has hindered the development of other renewable sources, while natural gas has been rendered impractical due to the lack of domestic supply. Thus in March 2006, China outlined a plan to expand nuclear power production from 8.6 GW as of 2007 to 40 GW by 2020. As part of this expansion, there are currently 25 nuclear reactors are under construction in China. By comparison, only 12 are currently operational. [4] However, senior Chinese energy officials have stated that given the national enthusiasm for nuclear power, capacity may actually overshoot official targets, reaching 70 GW by 2020. [3] Regardless of these ambitious expansion plans, nuclear power will still make up only a tiny fraction of total energy production- assuming that capacity reaches 40 GW by 2020, this would still only amount to 4% of total electricity capacity. [1] This is an especially small value when compared to percentages for other developed countries. For example, nuclear energy accounts for 40% of electricity generation in South Korea and 30% in nearby Japan. [1]

There has been some concern that this expansion may be too rapid - to maintain pace with its plans, China must construct two to three 1 GW reactors per year. While this type of ambitious nuclear expansion is not unprecedented, since a similar expansion United States in 1960's and 1970's, China's expansion efforts must overcome several challenges. [3,4]

Although China has had an almost spotless record of safety at nuclear facilities, with only one minor incident in recent decades, the current regulatory structure will likely need to be improved to handle the expansion. In the status quo, the regulatory structure lacks a clear, logical organization, so closely related regulatory responsibilities are often inefficiently split between multiple agencies. While it would be ideal to have one organization overseeing the disposal of nuclear waste, in China this responsibility is split between the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the China Atomic Energy Authority. [3] Sometimes, the illogical division of responsibilities means that regulatory agencies do not have the capabilities necessary to fully execute their mandates. For example, the National Nuclear Safety Administration, which is the chief regulator of civilian nuclear activities, does not have its own internal research and development arm. [4] Thus it is incapable of verifying the specifications of purchased nuclear technology, and cannot conduct experiments that would lead to the development of original specifications and regulations, instead relying upon the adaptation of relevant international standards and regulations. Additionally, there is no overarching set of nuclear regulations, as is the case with Japan's Atomic Energy Basic Law; instead, there is a patchwork of regulations, with each regulator producing its own set of requirements. Sometimes, important regulations, such as a law governing nuclear accident liability, simply do not exist. Of the rules and regulations that do exist, many were issued nearly a decade ago, and have not been updated to keep up with the next-generation reactors that China is currently bringing online. [4] To compound problems, regulatory agencies are somewhat understaffed, and may be unprepared to regulate the growing number of nuclear facilities in China. For example, China's NNSA's ratio of staff to nuclear energy capacity (22.9 staff/GW) is substantially smaller than that of the US (38.6 staff/GW) and other developed countries.

Another potential problem could bee China's chronic poor construction quality. With general construction projects, the rapid volume and pace of construction projects, combined with factors such as "poor planning, poor quality control, unqualified construction workers, corruption and bribes, and/or theft of materials," have lead to widespread poor construction problems. [4] However, as long as these nuclear facilities are granted priority above normal local infrastructure construction projects, these issues will be unlikely to face similar problems. Additional difficulties may arise if companies with no experience in nuclear facility construction, such as generalized construction companies, are pressed into service constructing facilities due to the rapid pace of the nuclear expansion.

China may also find problems finding the qualified nuclear science professionals, including engineers, designers, researchers, and technicians, that are necessary to power this expansion. One survey predicted that 6000 additional such personnel will be needed by 2020, although estimates do vary. [4] As of 2004, only roughly 600 Chinese students a year were admitted to nuclear science programs, with only 30% opting to seek work in that field. While universities and nuclear industry leaders have established new nuclear degree programs in the intervening period, it remains to be seen whether quality standards will have to compromised in order to generate the volume of graduates necessary to fill these positions.

In conclusion, China's rapidly expanding energy needs, combined with the need to de-emphasize coal usage, has necessitated China's plan to rapidly expand its nuclear capacity by 2020. While nuclear power will still represent a tiny fraction of total energy consumption even after this expansion, the pace of this expansion is very ambitious, and is likely to face many issues. China will need to reorganize and expand its regulatory framework in order to safely facilitate and monitor the additional nuclear facilities that are constructed. Additionally, it will need to ensure that the poor construction standards that have plagued other government projects do not affect new facilities, as this could have disastrous consequences. Finally, China will need to make additional efforts to ensure there will be enough qualified nuclear science personnel to staff these nuclear facilities and engage in related research.

© Bryan Chan. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] Y. Zhou, "Why Is China Going Nuclear?" Energy Policy 38, 3755 (2010).

[2] Y. Xu, "Nuclear Energy in China: Contested Regimes," Energy 33, 1197 (2008).

[3] Q. Wang, Qiang. "China Needing a Cautious Approach to Nuclear Power Strategy," Energy Policy 37, 2487 (2009).

[4] Y. Zhou et al., "Is China Ready for Its Nuclear Expansion?" Energy Policy 39, 771 (2011).